Many people in our day have made comparisons between Christianity and other historic religions. Frequently these comparisons are made in order to assert the similarities between them. Sometimes people foolishly declare that “all religions are the same” (or some other phrase like this). To note similarities between the worldviews of the historical religious and philosophical traditions is quite valid and useful but it is a fact that these traditions (and the claims they make) are not “the same” regarding what they affirm about God and the essentials of reality. I think that this statement reflects either ignorance or willful misrepresentation of the facts available to any thoughtful and reasonable person.
One of the primary points of difference between historic religions/philosophies is the end goal of human life; that is, the explicit purpose of life. Again, while there may be some overlap of identification for hope in faith it remains true that they are not “the same.” As for historic Christian faith the end goal or purpose of human life is perfection in love.
In my relationships I have been blessed to discover just how far short I fall in regard to loving the people God has placed in my life. I am grateful for this knowledge for many reasons but especially because it reminds me daily how much God loves and adores me as his adopted son through the Lord Jesus Christ. Other religious traditions do teach and expect adherents to take responsibility for doing concrete things to help their fellow religious peers and those who do not share their beliefs (acts of mercy, basic kindness and meeting basic needs). There is a sense of compelling need to be aware of and do good for other people—one’s family, neighbors and those who are part one’s social and religious group. All major religious and philosophical traditions share this basic concern. Along with this, they tend to emphasize the development of moral character and the practice of virtue.
Christian tradition stands out in that it posits that the end goal for human life is perfection in love. Not merely that people should try to do their best to be kind or at minimum treat their fellow human beings with respect–that is assumed to be mandatory within the vision of biblically informed and shaped ethics. For to relate to people, all people, justly and respectfully is to recognize that all people bear the image of God (Proverbs 14:31; 17:5; James 3:7-10). Mere toleration and even mutual respect is not love as defined in Scripture and modeled by the Lord Jesus. The requirement for disciples of the Lord is much more stringent than any ethical and moral standards laid by the teachers of other historic religious and philosophical traditions. It is nothing short of perfection in love.
This point is demonstrated in a remarkable statement in The Conferences, by John Cassian (360-432). In instructing those who had taken on the monastic life the elder monk states the following:
“The Apostle [Paul] declares in regard to the bodily renunciation that we have been talking about: ‘If I gave all my goods to feed the poor and handed my body over to be burned, but did not have love, it would profit me nothing.’ [1 Cor. 13:3] The blessed Apostle would never have said this had he not in the spirit foreseen the future—that some people who had given all their property to feed the poor would not be able to arrive at gospel perfection and at the lofty summit of love because they were dominated by pride and impatience and clung in their hearts to their former vices and wicked behavior; they would be utterly unconcerned to purify themselves of these things, and for this reason they would not attain to the love of God which never fails. . . . And suppose to this distribution I added martyrdom in the form of burning my flesh, such that I hand over my body for the sake of Christ. Yet if I am impatient or angry or envious or proud or inflamed by others’ insults, or if I seek what is my own or think what is evil or do not bear patiently and willingly all the things that could be inflicted upon me, the renunciation and the burning up of the outer man will be of no value to me interiorly if I am still involved in my former vices. For, while in the fervor of my first conversion I disdained the mere substance of this world (which is defined as neither good nor bad but indifferent), I was unconcerned about getting rid of the harmful characteristics of a vicious heart and about attaining to the Lord’s love, which is patient, kind, not envious, not puffed up, not easily angered, does not act falsely, does not seek what is its own, thinks no evil, bears all things, endures all things, and, lastly, never permits the one who pursues it to fall because of sin’s deceitfulness.” (John Cassian, The Conferences, Third Conference, Chapter VII, paragraphs 7-8, 10-11 [Paulist Press:1997], pp.126-128.)
Love is at the center of biblical faith. The reason for this is because God is holy-love. And if God’s essential character is holy-love then it follows that those who claim to believe his word revealed through the Word, the eternal Son of God, will be learning to love God’s holiness and love others as God loves (see Ephesians 4:25-5:2). For the Lord stated plainly that his disciples were to be “perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, NRSV) (By the way, the Greek word translated here “perfect” carries the sense of moral perfection expressed in one’s behavior.)
I could continue to lay out example from Scripture regarding the fundamental expectations for God’s people but I will not. My purpose is not to establish a point that should be obvious to any careful student of Scripture. I will leave the reader to pursue that study.
My point is this: That one of the things that makes Christian faith distinct is that those who are “in Christ” are transformed so they love holiness and out of participation in the holiness of Christ himself can progressively learn to love God and other people. This is unique among all historic religious/philosophical traditions. No other tradition demands so much nor promises so radical a fix of human nature. The commands of God in Scripture and the stern warnings of the consequences to God’s people for ignoring them only make sense to me in light of God’s promised provision of mercy and power to live by faith.
Only God can do what he requires of his people. And he is not merely willing to “help” humans in their feeble efforts at piety and fidelity in religious practices or meditation techniques—that would not be enough. No, God must become for us the wisdom and creative energy within us that makes it possible for us to live authentically righteous lives. This is the hope presented in Scripture and most preeminently in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God that he has given us his Spirit to gift us with all that God wants to lavishly give to his children in love. Thanks be to God that the Spirit mediates the gifts of God which the blood of the cross opened the doors for us to receive. Thanks be to the Father who loves us and is ready to extend his mercy when we call out to him. Thanks be to the Triune God who is set upon human perfection in love.